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The Dragon’s Jacket

coat

In the town where I grew up there was a flea market. It was held every Saturday in a concrete courtyard behind the High Street shops, and it was where I spent most of my money between the ages of 10 and 18.
I collected things. My collections at one time included stamps, candles, tea tins and polished stones, but the collection I have maintained for most of my life has been that of old bottles and jars. Cod bottles with marbles, ink bottles, brown glazed cream jugs, 2-toned cider flagons and the occasional stone hot water ‘pig’. In my one-hour lunch break from my teenage Saturday job (in an achingly classy furniture and gift shop) I would buy a bag of chips and head for the market, browsing at a leisurely pace, the hot vinegary chips keeping my hands warm. The stallholders all knew me, and the man with the bottle stall would sometimes keep things by for me. I had very little money, so each purchase was made after an age of deliberation: sometimes it took me weeks to decide which lemonade bottle to buy.
There was a stall next to the bottle table which was crammed with vintage collectibles – stuff like old OXO tins, deck chairs and glass beads. I browsed there too, and occasionally bought something cheap like a small box that had once held Parma Violets. One Saturday I followed my usual routine – chip shop, flea market, bottle stall. But my purposeful steps were halted suddenly by the junk stall. There, dangling from a wooden hanger, was the most amazing piece of clothing I had ever seen. It was a boxy jacket made of very dark blue, almost black, thin corded material. At its cuffs and geometric angular collar was a thin rim of dark red ribbon, and round every edge was a rope of gold braid. Down the double-breasted front marched a line of tarnished brass buttons. The lining was black satin and the smell of decades hit my nostrils as I tried it on. It was a perfect fit, albeit a bit long in the arms.
The man on the stall told me that it was the jacket of a cinema commissionaire, the uniformed presence who opened doors, presided over the foyer, helped ladies on with their coats and occasionally introduced the films, no doubt featuring Hollywood legends like Clarke Gable and Hedy Lamarr. The jacket evoked movie glamour; it had a quasi-military air and more than a hint of Sergeant Pepper about it. I wanted it so much my stomach hurt. The stallholder wanted £40.00 for it.
It was a huge amount of money for me at the time. My Saturday job paid £8.00 a week and that had to cover my clothes, my books, my going out, my Saturday chips, everything. The stallholder and I came to a deal. He dropped the price to £38.00 and he allowed me to pay in instalments. It was nearly 5 months before I paid the last of the money and got to slip the musty satin over my shoulders once more. I paraded around the market and let the stallholders see me – they all knew how long I had waited for that moment. They applauded and admired, and I felt like I was on top of the world.
I wore the jacket regularly for years. My favourite outfit at 18 was a pair of tight cream jeans, knee length leather boots, black t-shirt and the commissionaire’s jacket. People knew me by it. Several women and a couple of men tried to buy it from me. When one of my university boyfriends first saw me, I was wearing it: he turned to a mutual friend and said ‘Who the hell is that?’
Years later I made a disastrous attempt to turn over the thick ropes of braid. The gold was tarnished on the outside and shiny underneath and I wanted to reverse it to get the bright gold uppermost. I unpicked the sleeves at the shoulders to reveal wads of woollen padding that looked like furniture stuffing. My braid-reversal did not really work.

Recently, we started the process of clearing out the boxes in our shed…and the jacket has surfaced again! It is still awesome, but looks very battle-weary (as you can probably tell from the photo). I wonder if a good clean and a clever seamstress could revive its former glories? I have tried it on – it still fits, and the strange musty aroma transports me back to those teenage years; the chips, the flea market, and the power of wearing The Jacket.

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Christmas 1973

Piano

Christmas Eve 1973

I was six years old and had recently started school. It was de rigueur in the primary schools of the time for pupils to take up the recorder, and it was there that I first learned to read music. I looked admiringly to my recorder teacher, Mrs Kibblewhite, and discovered that she also played and taught the piano; thus the idea first took hold in the brain of little Dragon.

At lunchtime on Christmas Eve, my grandmother arrived to spend the big day with our family. After she was settled with a cup of tea (served in her own bone china cup and saucer as she refused to drink out of our mugs), Nana questioned me as to what Santa was bringing.

‘I know what I’m getting,’ I said confidently.
‘Do you, darling? And what is Santa bringing you?’
‘A piano.’

My parents, listening nearby, were taken aback by this. They hadn’t got me a piano! However; I was so sure, and so adamant, that they felt that they couldn’t disappoint me. So (unbeknownst to me) my father ran up to the High Street, went to the local toy shop, and found a small plastic piano, about 6 inches high, which had something like a xylophone inside it so that when you hit a note, a tinny bell-sound resulted. It had a range of one octave, and the black keys were painted on.

Come Christmas morning, the rest of the world might as well not have existed – only my piano. Mum used a felt tip to mark numbers on the keys, and wrote out a few notated tunes for me (Rudolph and the baby Jesus featured strongly, I recall). I was delighted and instantly absorbed.

Back at school after the holidays I told Mrs Kibblewhite that I now had a piano, and wanted to start lessons as soon as possible. I think I must have been quite insistent, as a few weeks later Mrs K and my mum had a chat at the school gate, with Mrs Kibblewhite saying ‘I think she might be serious about this’.

A few weeks after that, it came home – a big old fashioned upright that looked like it had either been in the Wild West or a pub. It was hopelessly out of tune, and stayed that way for the rest of its days; nevertheless, I managed to pass 4 music grades on it. The piano became my default option; if I was happy, I played it. If I was sad or angry, I played it. My brother asked my mum one morning where I was. ‘She’s upstairs in her bedroom’ she replied. ‘No she’s not, I can’t hear the piano’.

At the age of about 10, my parents got a Hire Purchase deal on a new modern piano, and I carried on with the exams, sitting Grade 8 at the age of 15. I had a fruitful duet partnership with a classmate, and we had several good party pieces, including the Blue Danube and Handel’s Arrival of the Queen of Sheba! My favourite solo pieces included late Beethoven sonatas, and Chopin Nocturnes (typical for an emotional teenager, I think). I carried on lessons with Mrs Kibblewhite until I was 18 – she was my teacher for over 12 years.

When I left home to study, all sorts of other priorities took over, and as I had no regular access to a piano, I just stopped playing. And I haven’t, with any seriousness, played it for 30 years.

But a couple of weeks ago, I took a deep breath and went to have a chat to a friend and neighbour who is also a singer, pianist, recording artist….and teacher. I have taken the first tentative steps back into proper playing, and my new (patient) teacher is taking it slowly – back to Grade 2! I am also starting, after playing nothing but classical, to learn the basics of blues piano and improvisation. It’s the best present I could have given myself.

Happy Christmas everyone!

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The Dragon Returns

Hello folks, and welcome back. Sort of. Although this is a newly launched blog, it is actually the third incarnation of Stromness Dragon after the dearly-departed original BBC Island Blogging, and the independently hosted Island Blogging (also now defunct, set up and run by a fellow called Les who moved to Lewis).

Until something pops into my brain, I thought I would track down some of my old posts and stick them up. A revisiting of old glories for some, a brand new experience for others, and a way for me to edit out some of the more obvious howlers and any escapades which might compromise my *ahem* professional integrity.

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